Community engagement is essential to advancing environmental justice: NERC conference


Ongoing and multifaceted relationships with community members play a powerful role in influencing local and national environmental justice efforts, speakers said at the Northeast Recycling Council virtual conference.

Environmental justice was an important theme of the NERC conference October 12-14, which featured speakers from local activist groups, businesses, nonprofits, and the US EPA. Participants weighed in on the scale of pollution in neighborhoods the EPA calls environmental justice communities, highlighted grassroots efforts to advocate for a stronger community and suggestions on how waste management and recycling facility operators can build better relationships within their communities.

Here are some takeaways from those conversations at NERC.

Building healthy relationships in EJ communities that go beyond pollution control

Carlton Waterhouse, the candidate for deputy administrator in the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, stressed that the waste and recycling industry should view environmental justice as a relationship-building effort at long-term focus on equality.

“When we talk about sustainable practices, we have to talk about social equity,” said Waterhouse, the keynote speaker. The EPA under the Biden administration has stressed the importance of environmental justice, and Waterhouse has a background in work as the agency’s former EJ lawyer. He invited participants to move beyond thinking about environmental justice as a simple pollution issue and ask whether the waste and recycling industry equitably distributes services across all types of neighborhoods, income levels and racial and cultural origins.

“If we are to engage in our work of sustainable development and sustainable resource management… it is essential that we implement circular economy strategies that will include communities with environmental justice.

Waterhouse said businesses should also consider how their business contributes economically to a region and whether employment opportunities are equally accessible to all types of groups. Companies can find out more about the neighborhoods in which they operate before opening or expanding locations, and can commit to hiring locally for a certain percentage of jobs.

Most importantly, operators should involve the community as much as possible when making important decisions. “Think about how decisions are made and who is in the room when those decisions happen. Who is consulted and who is notified in advance? ”

The community organization helped shape New Jersey’s environmental justice law

New Jersey pass a law in 2020 which obliges certain operators to take into account the impacts on environmental justice on neighboring communities when they request the expansion of a facility, the construction of a new one or the renewal of a permit authorization. It is considered the country most notable environmental justice law due to its mandatory compliance elements, and local activists explained to NERC attendees how their long-term work on the issue formed the basis of the new law.

In the past, states have tried to regulate pollution through individual standards for specific air and water limits, or specific rules for industries or types of permits. “The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account the total amount of pollution in the neighborhood,” Nicky Sheats said, director of the Center for Urban Environment at the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Policy and Research. He is also a member of the board of directors of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance.

Members of this alliance, along with other community advocates, have worked on environmental justice issues in the state for years. A successful effort convinced several municipalities, including Newark, to adopt cumulative impact guidelines, he said. These require that certain companies prove that they are reducing pollution or that they do not add more pollution to the community, when applying for certain permits. These efforts influenced New Jersey’s environmental justice law, Sheats said.

Parts of the new state law are already in effect, which means operators of landfills, incinerators, transfer stations and other solid waste facilities may need to start preparing themselves. they are considering applying for permits or have existing permit applications in the works, said Matt Karmel, an attorney with Riker Danzig. The law now requires applicants to hold a public hearing, open a public comment period of at least 60 days, and provide an environmental justice impact statement that determines any new environmental or public health impact. that the installation could pose to “overburdened communities”.

Maria Lopez –Nakednotez, director of environmental justice and community development for the Ironbound Community Corporation, explained why community-based licensing processes are so important to the state. Some neighborhoods in large cities such as Newark are affected by pollution from multiple industries at the same time, including an incinerator operated by Covanta and truck traffic carrying garbage from neighboring New York City, she said.

While each of these industries may be in compliance with its individual permits, “each permit is allowed to go up to its limit. So what happens when you’re in this neighborhood and every permit hits the limit? »Said Lopez-Nakednotez.

Laws that take into account cumulative human impacts, and not just the parameters of individual permits, “will hopefully be the start of a shift in consciousness as to how we regulate,” she said. . “We just want to know, are you adding to the problem or not? “

Reuse centers aim to create community action poles

Speakers from the reuse centers also discussed how their businesses prioritize building and advocating for communities, as well as reducing, repairing and reusing waste.

Nancy Meyer, CEO of Community Forklift in Maryland, said reuse centers with strong community relationships should center the concerns and priorities of the neighborhood they are in. In addition to being a store that sells second-hand goods, “it becomes a place where people start to hear, think and talk about their living conditions and their creation of places,” she said. declared.

Community Forklift is located on a brownfield site in a neighborhood with a history of other air and water pollution issues. Several years ago, the company helped support a community effort to successfully prevent the construction of a cement plant in the neighborhood. “It was kind of a lightning rod for people to really engage and learn about environmental justice on the ground in a very meaningful way,” Meyer said.

Reuse centers aim to remove materials from landfills and incinerators, which can help reduce the financial burden that low-income and environmental justice communities pay for waste management by reducing overall disposal costs. The cost of garbage collection and recycling “may be factored into residents’ rent or reflected in property taxes, and when collection costs increase… it ends up being outsourced to the community”, a- she declared.

Diane Cohen, executive director of Finger Lakes ReUse in New York City, said reuse centers can also be a hub to help people get back on their feet. Her organization offers reused items free of charge to community members with financial burdens through grants and community donations.

Finger Lakes ReUse has a “top priority” to intentionally practice inclusive and diverse hiring practices, she said. One of the main goals is to hire people who have barriers to other jobs and pay them a living wage.

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